$450 million from the depths

Published Jul 26, 2015, 7:51 am IST
Updated Mar 28, 2019, 10:21 am IST
Parts of famous Spanish treasure, retrieved from the sunken Nuestra Señora de Atocha

How many times have we all read and re-read Treasure Island in our childhood, wondering if treasures actually exist, resting on the seabed. Well, obviously they do. In 1985, an intrigued Mel Fisher unearthed one of the most famous treasures from the 1622 shipwreck Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. And now, 30 years later, much of the bounty of 40 tonnes of silver and gold is going under the hammer at New York’s Guernsey’s auction house.

The history of the sunken treasure
In 1622, due to hurricane winds, the famous fleet of Spanish ships including Nuestra Señora de Atocha sank to a depth of 55 feet off Florida Keys. The fleet which was carrying not just guns and ammunitions but also precious jewels, gold and silver, had the Spanish authorities on alert and they even sent many troops looking for the cargo. But as fate would have it, a second hurricane, that pushed the wreckage even further, made it more difficult to be found. The loss of this cargo had a huge impact on Spain’s economy, even resulting in the country to take financial loans to fight the 30 Year War.

The hunt
In 1962, American treasure hunter Mel Fisher met another treasure hunter Kip Wagner, who convinced Fisher to join him on a trail to find a 1715 shipwreck. They unearthed 1,033 gold coins from the site and Mel famously exclaimed, “Once you have seen the ocean bottom paved with gold, you’ll never forget it!” (as is written in the tribute to the treasure hunter in the official Mel Fisher site) It was only in 1969 that Fisher paid more attention to the Atocha treasure. He then spent 16-and-a-half years looking around for the wreckage and the treasure of Atocha. Many lives were lost yet the treasure was nowhere to be found. And everyday, Fisher kept himself and his crew motivated with his motto “Today’s the day”.

And finally on July 20, 1985 he brought up on surface the 40 tons of gold and silver, which have an estimated value of over $450 million. It was Fisher’s son Kane, who wired the news of the treasure being found. And even then Fisher had to fight for the treasure for over eight years as the State of Florida claimed entitlement. It was only in 1992 that Fisher won the case. But only six years after his victory, Fisher passed away. And apparently, the wealthiest portion of the ship, the stern castle, is still amidst the wreckage and hasn’t been found.

The auction
Marking the 30th anniversary of his famous find, on August 5, over 40 artefacts from the ship and Fisher’s finds will go under the hammer. Around 100 rare coins from Atocha and its sister ship Santa Margarita will be auctioned as well. The proceeds from the auction will go to the Michael Abt, Jr. Have a Heart Foundation, which is established in the memory of Michael, Fisher’s grandson who passed away when he was 12 because of a sudden cardiac arrest while he was in school.